GOSHEN — City Council members weighed the forest against the trees Tuesday as they questioned whether Goshen could expand its green commitment without overgrowing the size of government.

Council voted 4-2 on the first reading of an ordinance, which would create a Department of Environmental Resilience, if the final version passes by budget time in a few weeks. The department would take the lead in realizing goals like the carbon neutrality and tree coverage measures council approved earlier this year.

It would employ two people, the current city forester and a full-time assistant who would also handle writing grant applications for the city.

In his pitch for the new department, Mayor Jeremy Stutsman estimated a total annual budget of $600,000, a third of which would be new spending, while he noted it could bring in savings in areas like energy costs.

“This is all about helping to bring all our departments closer together and making sure that we’re continuing to look for efficiencies. A lot of those efficiencies will be environmental,” he said in introducing the ordinance Tuesday. “I think that we can really work forward, work quicker, and do better things for city government and the community itself if we are able to create space for these conversations, and create a department that can actually focus on these types of issues.”

Finding balance

City Forester Aaron Sawatsky-Kingsley, who would head the new department, addressed the different needs in the city that he said will have to be juggled in creative ways in the future. He said the aim of the department is to find a balance among those needs while taking a long-term view.

“The idea behind this department is not to favor one of those aspects – whether it’s industrial, residential, commercial, environmental – over the other,” he told council, “but rather to find ways to help those aspects balance each other.” 

Environmental concerns are common to many parts of city government, from stormwater management to brownfield cleanup to leaf pickup, he observed. Even the cemetery department has to prepare for more flooding.

An increase in environmental awareness affects each department differently, and it’s more than any single department can manage alone, he said.

“Engineering department has to manage stormwater and stormwater education. Planning department must account for changing floodplains. Redevelopment has to manage a legacy of past environmental harm,” Sawatsky-Kingsley said. “The proposal is not that the new department sweeps up all these tasks and takes them on. The proposal is that a new department, whose core mission is long-term environmental and economic vibrancy, can take on some of these tasks, can strategize and support some of these tasks, and can be a space where new, related environmental tasks can incubate, and figure out the best solutions.”

‘Political pressure’

Several audience members spoke in favor of the new department. They included Kathleen Jones, chair of the Mayor’s Environmental Advisory Committee, and Jennifer Schrock, leader of the Mennonite Creation Care Network.

Others had questions about the cost of things like tree care or the possibility of new regulations. A few city council members had similar concerns.

Councilman Mike Orgill expressed fears over the potential influence the head of the environmental department could wield and the possibility of future regulations. 

“Not to mention that, even without regulation, a department like this has the potential to apply political pressure to private institutions,” he said. “My sense, and I think it’s pretty correct, would be that the person who is hired into this would not be somebody who favors free-market solutions to environmental problems.”

Others asked why a new department should have to be created, rather than just making a new position in an existing department. The thought of having a dedicated grant writer for the first time did prove popular, though.

Councilwoman Julia Gautsche said she doesn’t see the potential for regulations as much as the chance for the city to demonstrate how to be good to the environment while saving money. Councilwoman Julia King questioned what she called fear-based thinking, and said this is the next step after the measures council has already voted for.

“This council has already really said that we believe in this, so to me, this is putting our money where our mouth is, because we did pass the (carbon neutral) resolution 6-0,” she said. 

Youth Adviser Zoe Eichorn spoke in favor of the proposal on behalf of herself and the other high school students who wrote and introduced the carbon neutral resolution. She said the department would back up that goal with action.

“When my peers and I created the resolution ... we did it for a reason. Environmental resilience is very important to me and many of the youth in my community – in our community – and I feel like when we created that resolution, we didn’t want to just put words on a piece of paper,” she said. “Our goal was to have action come from those words, and I feel like this department is putting action behind the words that were passed unanimously in April. And I feel like the best way to support that resolution is to support this department.”

‘Better to have that conversation’

Councilmen Orgill and Doug Nisley voted against the ordinance on first reading. Councilman Adam Scharf did not vote.

The proposal will be put to a second vote at a future council meeting.

Sawatsky-Kingsley said Wednesday that he felt they made a strong enough case for the new department to pass on first reading, but he didn’t take the vote for granted. 

He said the votes reflected the comfort level of council members and the fact that they have questions and concerns that are understandable. He said supporters of the proposal have to provide the best, most compelling answers they can.

“We have some work to do yet before the second reading, to help people with questions understand and appreciate what the aims are and what the work is we’re proposing, and why it’s beneficial,” Sawatsky-Kingsley said. “It was a vote of confidence for us to continue making our case and to strengthen our case.”

He noted that the nature of the department itself is going to require collaboration, communication and compromise, rather than dictating the way things will be. He said the purpose of the department isn’t to be a bully or a cop, but to provide information, options and potential consequences.

He also pointed out that the ability to create regulations would still lie with council, not the department.

“There are ways in which the free market does have innovative solutions that may be worth considering. The idea is that having a department which is focused on this kind of work, this aspect of the community, can bring more information to the table for the free market,” he said. “I recognize that there is a continuum of perspectives on what it means to value the ecosystem, and I don’t have a monopoly on that. That’s where the conversation comes in. It’s better to have that conversation than not have it.”

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